All set to uncork Miami River's 90-proof economic kick
By Michael Lewis
In less than two weeks Miami-Dade is to celebrate an economic boon right in the teeth of the nation's downturn. And while we'll be the biggest beneficiaries, ripples will spread broadly.
The celebration — just in time for electioneering, yet totally deserved — will mark the end of the $89 million dredging of the Miami River begun in 2004.
Why hail what seems like a normal, dreary public works project along the river that bisects our city?
Since we can't see below the surface, the Miami River today looks exactly like it did four years ago. But what we've done below the waterline has both environmental and paramount economic significance.
The dredging not only has scooped out Miami's de facto trash bin, a mishmash ranging from junked cars to bowling balls, but with it the accumulated pollutants that poison not only the river but Biscayne Bay as they drift out the river's mouth.
The cleanup will bolster our environment for generations.
Economic benefits will flow just as long. Because in restoring the 5.5-mile-long river's channel to its former 15-foot depth from the silted-in 9 to 11 feet we've lived with for decades, we'll add vital shipping.
The gritty freighters that workaday tugs guide up and down the river to 26 international cargo terminals are the least glamorous end of the marine trade, far unlike the massive ships that visit the pristine Port of Miami.
But the river-borne cargo trade with the Caribbean is central to our economy. It's been measured at $4 billion a year, making the Port of the Miami River — which is a virtual but very real seaport — the state's fourth largest, equal to the Port of Tampa. Informal and unorganized, it nonetheless fulfills a key economic function.
How vital is Miami's international trade? In the first half of the year, as economies regionally and nationally sagged, Miami's exports soared 21.7%, leading both the state and the nation in growth. Much of that trade flows through the Port of Miami, and as the Miami River's shipping seizes on the benefits of dredging, exports there will follow suit.
Cargo shippers welcome the deepened river. For years, they've been forced to limit loads to about half capacity because the shallow waters couldn't float more. Dredging will double loads, buoying up trade and profits.
The community will also profit. Up to now, those freighters could only traverse the river at high tide, forcing bridges up and auto traffic to shut down as they passed. With a deeper channel, they'll be able to schedule sailings by the clock, not the tide.
Dredging didn't come overnight or without travail. It had to navigate many of the 33 government agencies that bear Miami River responsibilities. Local leaders and countless volunteers partnered with politicians in Washington as well as Tallahassee and at home to make it happen. All merit our thanks.
Work was first proposed in 1972 and finally funded to begin in 2004 — but then halted in 2005 less than half way through when funds ran dry. It began again this February with fresh funding and an April 2009 deadline and now is almost to the river's mouth.
The Oct. 15 celebration may be a bit early — federal inspectors will be surveying the job and may send dredgers out for spot cleanup. But meanwhile, river traffic will expand with a far deeper channel. As cargo flows down the river, more export payments will flow into bank accounts.
Other economic benefits will ripple in the wake of that added trade. Marine industries along the river will add jobs. Already, Merrill-Stevens has begun to expand, leading to 350 more workers within two years. That 350 alone is more new permanent jobs than a $600 million baseball stadium would infuse, at far less cost. And the dredging is to last at least 50 years, far longer than modern-day stadiums.
Somewhere along that 50-year span — hopefully not too far along it — Miami will gain another huge boost from the dredging. For when trade with a free Cuba returns, the Port of the Miami River will expand its scope as we provide the materials to rebuild that nation's crumbled infrastructure and jumpstart its economy while energizing our own.
So pop the champagne corks and let the celebration flow right along with the river. All hail the economic high we'll feel for generations to come.